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County Resident Urged as Envoy to Lithuania : Diplomacy: Rep. Cox asks White House to appoint Lithuanian-born businessman Richard Kontrimas, 57, as ambassador to the newly independent Baltic nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the United States moves to establish diplomatic missions in the newly independent Baltic Republics, an Orange County congressman is urging the White House to name a Mission Viejo businessman born in Lithuania as the new ambassador to the fledgling nation.

Richard Kontrimas, 57, president of an international trading company that markets computers, has no formal diplomatic experience. But Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who is pushing the Kontrimas appointment, called him “superbly qualified” to serve in what promises to be one of the most critical diplomatic tasks in the post-Communist world.

Cox cited Kontrimas’ longtime work with U.S. groups that have fought for independence for the Baltic nations, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, as well as his friendship with Lithuanian President Vytautas Z. Landsbergis.

“I can’t think of anyone in America who would better serve the President or the country” as head of a new diplomatic mission in Lithuania, Cox said Monday. He said he has already written letters to President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III urging the appointment.

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Despite Cox’s enthusiasm, the naming of Kontrimas to the post is regarded as a long shot.

State Department officials expect that the usual tussle between career foreign service officers and political appointees over ambassadorial posts is likely to be exaggerated in the the Baltics, because the positions are seen as highly sensitive and sought-after.

At the moment, the White House is leaning toward the appointment of career diplomats to the Baltic posts, a Bush Administration official said. However, the official added that it is not “inconceivable” that Kontrimas could win the job, if he “has the right credentials.”

“I was very surprised when (Cox) asked me whether I would be interested,” Kontrimas said in a telephone interview from Munich, Germany, where he is traveling on business. “It took me very little time to say yes. It would be a challenge and a great honor.

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As Lithuania rises from what remains of the Soviet Union, he added, “it is a time when it is absolutely necessary to be creative and entrepreneurial.”

“Entrepreneur” is high on Kontrimas’ resume.

He is president of two companies: Bridge Associates Inc., based in Laguna Hills, exports American computers throughout the world, and RADIAN Audio Engineering Inc., based in Anaheim, builds and sells high-fidelity loudspeaker systems. Kontrimas previously worked as a researcher and sales executive for IBM and two other computer firms.

In addition, he has served on a host of Lithuanian-American groups and committees, including the National Executive Committee of the American Lithuanian Community, and the American Baltic Student Federation.

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Kontrimas was on hand in Lithuania in February, 1990, when Cox and three other members of Congress vainly sought to enter the country to witness Lithuania’s first democratic election since the Soviet takeover.

When the congressmen finally were admitted by Soviet authorities, hours after the election ended, Kontrimas was at the airport to greet them, accompanied by President Landsbergis.

Born in Lithuania in 1934 of an American mother and a Lithuanian father, Kontrimas fled the country with his family when he was 10. The family wound up in a work camp in southern Germany before being liberated by French forces at the end of the war.

The family ultimately settled in Brooklyn. Kontrimas earned several degrees, including a Ph.D. in metallurgy, and eventually married a fellow Lithuanian refugee. He and his wife, Raimonda, came to Orange County in 1974.

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